Werner Herzog has spent a career documenting humans forging their way into knowingly treacherous territory, whether it’s the mad perseverance of Fitzcarraldo or the deadly insanity of Grizzly Man, tracing the life and death of Timothy Treadwell at the hands of bears. With QUEEN OF THE DESERT, the writer/director’s first work of fiction since 2009’s My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, Herzog returns to historical fiction to chronicling the life of Getrude Bell. In addition to being a writer and explorer, Bell was a contemporary of T.E. Lawrence, and thus instrumental in helping establish the Hashemite dynasties in modern Jordan and Iraq.
The film covers the personal and professional adventures of Bell (Nicole Kidman), painting her as a restless spirit who never fit in with British society at the turn of the century. Sent to the British consulate in Tehran, she begins a romance with Henry Cadogan (James Franco) and a much larger one with what we now refer to generally as the Middle East. Herzog’s script glances over significant accomplishments such as the ten new paths she forged in the Bernese Alps, but instead stays in that romantic ideal of the half-dozen times she crossed “Arabia” over the course of 12 years. It certainly allows him and his frequent cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger to stage a lavish and gorgeously realised vision of the dunes and vistas of period Arabia.
Kidman is a natural fit for this film, her star status disarming the audience into thinking there is nothing more to this adventurer than being a high-born daughter of privilege. Yet like Bell herself, Kidman is perfectly at ease in this harsh environment. The film doesn’t shy from her headstrong nature, something that was a fact of Bell’s popular reputation at the time, and the series of men that her life quite literally can’t wait to give up their treasures and secrets to her. Of those men, Franco’s accent shifts as constantly as the desert sands, but he provides a charming entry point for the handful of people who tie her more to Western civilisation than her beloved desert. By contrast, there is a desperation about Damian Lewis’ military man, who also becomes enamoured by the Desert Queen. These repeated loves and encounters merely hammer home the point that her “heart belongs to no-one now by the desert.”
QUEEN OF THE DESERT is fully aware of the cinematic legacy that it follows with David Lean’s epic, and indeed engages in a kind of intertextual dialogue with Lawrence of Arabia. It’s no mistake that someone of Robert Pattinson’s fame plays Lawrence in a small but memorable role, flippantly dismissing his own part in the British insertion in the Middle East, while rightfully praising Bell’s accomplishments. There’s more of a weariness about Pattinson’s Lawrence than Peter O’Toole’s, but there’s a direct line between the two performances, even as Pattinson downplays it to make it his own. At times, you can almost hear Maurice Jarre’s classic score stirring. Yet where Lawrence of Arabia found grandeur around every corner, QUEEN OF THE DESERT finds the unwritten beauty in the everyday moments of Bell’s travels.
Herzog’s deliberate pacing may frustrate some, as will the very definite heightened language of the melodrama that the film revels in. Yet like the Persian romance poetry that it so often references, the film patterns itself on the “poetry of life” that Bell professes she finds intoxicating about the desert. Herzog ultimately delivers something very different to his previous work, and it is an ambitious addition to his already significant contributions to cinema.
2015 | US | DIR: Werner Herzog | WRITERS: Werner Herzog | CAST: Nicole Kidman, James Franco, Damian Lewis, Robert Pattinson | DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission (AUS) | RUNNING TIME: 128 minutes | RATING:★★★★ (8/10)